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DeSantis makes court pick and Democrats lament: 'Things are likely going to get worse for us'

BY MATT DIXON - |01/09/2019 04:24 PM EST

Florida Supreme Court The retiring justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — until Tuesday 

were part of the liberal majority on the seven-person court, which has delivered big victories to Democrats. AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE — For years, a liberal-leaning Florida Supreme Court has stood as a policy bulwark for Democrats unable to thwart legislation in a state controlled by Republicans. Now, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has begun deconstructing the left's last line of defense.

DeSantis on Wednesday picked Barbara Lagoa, a 52-year-old Miami appeals judge, to the Florida Supreme Court, the first of at least three high court appointments he'll get to make as governor. Both DeSantis and Democratic opponent Andrew Gillum had invoked the court's looming vacancies to excite their base and frame the race as key to determining its direction.

DeSantis has made clear he intends to shift the court to the right. He's long expressed disdain for the panel's current makeup, accusing jurists of straying from the letter of the law into “judicial activism” and legislating from the bench.

“Things are likely going to get worse for us,” said state Sen. Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens). “But we knew that on election night.”

The retiring justices — Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince — until Tuesday were part of the liberal majority on the seven-person court, which has delivered big victories to Democrats.

In 2015, after a three-year legal battle, the court approved Florida state Senate and congressional voting maps that increased the number of Democratic-leaning districts. The lawsuit was brought by progressive groups and opposed by the GOP-led Legislature.

In 2017, the court upheld Florida’s ban on carrying firearms openly in public. Last year, it struck down a 24-hour abortion waiting period passed by Republican lawmakers.

The court also has rankled industry. In 2017, jurists rejected legislative changes to state expert witness laws that had been sought by business groups and opposed by plaintiffs' attorneys.

For years, the business-backed American Tort Reform Association, a lobbying group that counts insurers and medical providers among its members, had Florida at the top of its annual list of "judicial hellholes." In December, the state fell to second place behind California.

William Large, president of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, called Lagoa a judge “who will interpret the law and not legislate from the bench."

“DeSantis has begun his term with a judicial home run,” said House Speaker José R. Oliva. "Justice Barbara Lagoa is eminently qualified to serve the state of Florida.”

Counterintuitively, a conservative high court could prompt Republicans to tone down their ideological votes in the Legislature, said state Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Parkland), a former president of the Florida Justice Association, which represents trial attorneys.

Republicans might make fewer votes for their own political benefit, he said. Democrats in the past have accused Republicans of adopting bad policy because they know the court will later overturn it.

“They have had the ability to be a bit more freewheeling and give some red meat to their base knowing it will be struck down," Farmer said. “I hope my Republican colleagues who do value the separation of powers … are maybe a bit more cautious."